Jessica Williams jessicawtn
MEBANE — Alamance-Burlington Schools are still feeling the effects of a decision made 61 years ago.
Three cohorts of the ABSS Teacher Leadership Academy and 28 students attended “Why 1956 Matters,” a presentation about North Carolina’s reaction to Brown v. Board of Education (1954), on Monday, Oct. 30, at the Mebane Arts and Community Center.
For an hour, Ann McColl, a lawyer, constitutional scholar, and former legislative director with the State Board of Education, presented charts, photos and excerpts of speeches and letters from the pivotal year, laying out what major players were for and against the integration of public schools, and why.
She concluded the presentation with an excerpt from Gov. Luther Hodges’ speech to the General Assembly during a specially called session July 23, 1956: Hodges calls school integration a “sociological experiment” that would be carried out at the expense of children, and says he will use any legal means necessary to ensure that the “erroneous decision” by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education would not be “forced” on North Carolina.
The state was successful in delaying integration with the Pearsall Plan, later determined to be unconstitutional, and the N.C. Public School System was not fully integrated until the early 1970s.
How does that relate to teaching today?
After McColl’s presentation, educators and students grouped together to discuss the effects of delayed integration and how public schools remain segregated.
One group of teachers from North Graham Elementary School, which has a minority student population of more than 70 percent, agreed that there is definitely still segregation within ABSS, though it’s not the same beast it was in 1956.
“The caste system is based on economics, and the problem is that most minorities are poor. A majority of minorities are poor, and because of that, you go to certain schools, you have certain opportunities, you lack certain opportunities,” one teacher said, adding as one example that many children at North Graham struggle to pay for field trips.
“I was so privileged growing up, and I never realized caste systems until I taught at a school like North Graham Elementary, and I get so frustrated at the opportunities our children don’t have, and it’s so much more than ‘Can they do it?’ or ‘Can’t they do it?’ It’s what’s available to them and what’s not,” another teacher said.
Other teachers expressed frustration over the public school curriculum, particularly for Advanced Placement U.S. History, glossing over subjects like Hodges’ speech and the Pearsall Plan.
And others said it’s sometimes hard to be an advocate for equality because of the fear of being fired or offending a parent who doesn’t hold the same views.
But Superintendent Bill Harrison told the cohorts that equality is not a political view, it’s a core value of the school system.
“Don’t ever be afraid to speak about values. We don’t want to speak about politics, but we want to speak about our values,” he said.
When the redistricting plan was first announced, when the Board of Education was listening to concerns in public forums and via emails and phone calls, Harrison says, he received a letter from a parent saying Harrison was “out of touch” with what the community wants and that they should survey the county on whether the school system should go through with redistricting.
“I thought about it,” Harrison said. “If we did a survey in 1954, we wouldn’t be here together. … I sat in a lot of those public forums and heard people talk about the good old days and that things need to be like they used to be, they used to be pre-1954. They used to be 1958.”
Jaye Maritim, a senior at Eastern Alamance High School, brought an element of hope to the conversation, saying that an overwhelming majority of North Carolinians opposed Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s but integration still occurred.
“It’s the Martin Luther King Jrs. and Rosa Parkses that revolutionize society, and that is why hope is so prevalent in the 1956 story, and we can use that as an example. It parallels perfectly to modern-day society and the issues we’re facing right now,” Maritim said.
Reporter Jessica Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 336-506-3046. Follow her on Twitter at @jessicawtn.